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No draft daze anymore, Buccaneers are winners


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2000

TAMPA -- So this is how the other haves live? Never has a Bucs draft been so wonderfully quiet and status-rich.

Oh, how the Tampa Bay evolution invigorates. Allowing my community to see Bill Walsh huffing in San Francisco, Jerry Jones puffing in Dallas, Ron Wolf scrapping in Green Bay and Bill Parcells scheming in New York, ravenous icons all, trying to gather ample skills to be contemporarily competitive with your Bucs.

Enjoy it, my neighbors.

Embrace the mentality.

Nobody was sounding cocky around One Buccaneer Place, but from every Tampa Bay coach and all talent hawks there oozed a Sunday sense that Super Bowl XXXV, nine months away at Raymond James Stadium, is highly reachable for the formerly feeble locals.

Tony Dungy, Rich McKay and their helpers weren't bragging, swaggering or high-fiving, yet there was universal confidence that the Bucs have vaulted to sweet 2000 status, deserving a preseason grouping in the NFL stratosphere with the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins and the Tennessee Titans.

Given their needs, plus drafting positions, the Bucs had an exceptional weekend. Unquestionably so if we count Keyshawn Johnson as their first-round choice. "That jump-started us," general manager McKay said of signing the dynamic former Jets receiver. "From there, we were able to function like ... yeah, winners."

It was delightfully different, compared with a franchise's wretched, orange-tinted past, seeing the Bucs drafting a Tennessee Vols guard who will be allowed to accumulate pro football savvy from a Randall McDaniel before taking a starting lineup plunge.

Charles McRae could've used that.

Tampa Bay took a Miami Hurricanes linebacker from whom immediate impact isn't mandatory, except as a special-teams zealot. Then came a good-hands Kentucky tight end who won't be asked to immediately outcatch Dave Moore. Followed by a Southern California safety who can be schooled in combative, manly NFL arts by John Lynch.

It's how winners function.

"There was a real difference this time," said Dungy, the boss coach. "In the past, there was frequently a feeling that one or two rookies needed to immediately play significant roles. That can be unfair. Too much to ask. If all goes according to plan in the coming season, none of our draft picks is likely to start a game."

McKay cracked his first Bucs draft in 1978 as a teenager, answering phones for Tampa Bay's first coach, his father John. Now, with his finger on the draft trigger, at age 41, Rich's perspective is long run.

"No question, it's easier when you've already got a good team," McKay said. "It helps with expectations, which can be so unfair, with 22-year-old kids, fresh from college, being counted on as instant starters.

"It's so much better in regard to the learning curve. Our coaching staff has been exceptional at teaching and allowing youngsters to develop the right way. Cosey Coleman (Tennessee fellow), James Whalen (Kentucky), David Gibson (USC) can learn on practice fields from solid, veteran players."

How winners do it.

Cheers for the seventh-round snag of 5-foot-10 Joe Hamilton from Georgia Tech. Even if it means adopting, as Tampa Bay's quarterback theme song, It's a Small World After All. Don't believe any short-falling rumors, including the one about Shaun King, Eric Zeier and Little Joe being assembled because they all see eye-to-eye with squatty, wealthy Glazers who own this particular Ponderosa.

"I like it," Joel Glazer said.

Hamilton has big explosiveness. No one, if they'd been sitting beside me that extraordinary night last fall in Tallahassee, would undersell Joe. Florida State, eventual national champ, beat Tech, but FSU was blistered for 387 passing yards on 22 of 25 completions for four touchdowns. Hamilton ran 19 yards for a fifth score.

That's big time.

I don't know if he's a Doug Flutie in waiting. Can't be sure he'll ever outgun King. But I do know Hamilton, at his most sizzling, has large enough abilities and heavy enough ammo to deliver far more fun and production than so many 6-foot-5 quarterbacks we have endured.

"There are many ways that more positive feelings spill over, all a result of being an improved and more respected team," Dungy said. "It includes moments when ... we telephone young men to say we're picking him.

"Now, we always sense a lot of electricity and excitement, from the athletes as well as families and friends. All weekend, it seemed our draft picks were really, really enthused about becoming Buccaneers."

Unquestionably, during many Tampa Bay drafts in the beyond-woeful '80s and ugly early '90s, there were many collegiate studs who received such calls and instantly thought, "Oh, no, not the Bucs!"

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